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Vol. 74/No. 35      September 20, 2010

Malcolm X is relevant
for fighters today
Studying speeches arms militants to rebut
those who seek to dilute his message
(feature article)
Printed below is an excerpt from Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, a book by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, recently published by Pathfinder Press. The excerpt is from the chapter titled “Malcolm X: Revolutionary Leader of the Working Class,” a presentation by Barnes to a meeting in Atlanta in March 1987. Subheadings are by the Militant. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The face of Malcolm X is seen worldwide today. It can be found everywhere… .

But those of us who continue learning from Malcolm’s political example, and organize to keep it alive in word and deed, have a responsibility to recognize that with each passing anniversary, we are one year further away from Malcolm’s living presence in politics and the class struggle. Malcolm’s message, like that of other martyrs of the working classes, and of all great revolutionary leaders, becomes blurred. Different people give it a different political meaning, a different class content. Many try to tame it, to make it compatible with this or that illusory scheme to reform capitalism, to make imperialism “more peaceful,” to support one or another bourgeois politician in the Democratic or Republican parties. But Malcolm never ceased denouncing such notions. With Malcolm no longer among us to speak and act for himself, and with the direct impact of his political activity receding further into the past, those who wish to distort his revolutionary course have an easier time. Malcolm’s message seems to dissolve into an image, a simple commodity for sale.

As that happens, what gets lost—sometimes intentionally—is the modern revolutionary leader whose concrete political legacy is needed more than ever each time working people begin fighting. The idea, often unspoken, begins to be spread that while Malcolm was a “prophet” in his times, what he said and what he did have become less “relevant” today. Not that Malcolm wasn’t a great leader, the purveyors of such notions will say. Not that his traits as an individual don’t remain praiseworthy. But he was operating “way back” in the 1960s, under different social and political conditions. So the political conclusions Malcolm began drawing, especially during the last few months of his life, have little relevance to today’s world. Time marches on.

No matter how veiled or prettified, that’s a fairly common view of Malcolm’s significance more than two decades after his assassination.

Others narrow in on the fact that Malcolm was a wonderful speaker. But that, too, ends up being a way to devalue the significance of Malcolm’s political legacy, to diminish the strategic course he had thought out and was organizing to implement. Because what Malcolm spoke about were political ideas with practical implications, carefully reasoned ideas based on decades of experience in struggle by the oppressed and exploited not only in the United States but in revolutions the world over.  
Malcolm spoke the truth clearly
Malcolm was an effective speaker. To be in the same room with him, to hear him from a podium, had a powerful impact. He worked at speaking clearly, because he knew it was important to explain ideas. He knew it was not easy to dissect and clarify oppressive social relations that are papered over and obfuscated by the rulers. But Malcolm was never a “show-off” speaker. He had a quiet but powerful voice. He didn’t fashion himself a revolutionary “preacher.” He spoke the “King’s English,” not street talk. He didn’t lace his words with rhymes, alliteration, or political doggerel, in order to get around difficulties or deflect attention from inconsistencies.

Malcolm spoke like he was having a conversation with you—an insistent conversation, but a conversation. He was the opposite of a demagogue. He appealed to the mind, to the determination, and to the selflessness of those he was addressing, not to your preconceptions, emotions, or prejudices. He tried to wake you up to the facts, to the truth, including about yourself. In that, he was like other outstanding revolutionary leaders—from Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and Leon Trotsky, to Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Maurice Bishop, and Fidel Castro.

Above all, however, what Malcolm said must be available in writing. Because that political record needs to be read, reread, thought about, and studied. It needs to be accessible, so it can be checked against various latter-day “memories” or “interpretations.” That’s why it’s important that so many of his speeches and interviews, especially from late 1963 to his death in February 1965, are in print in hundreds of pages of books and pamphlets. Pathfinder Press, which publishes several of these collections, has announced plans to release in coming months another book by Malcolm, containing previously unpublished speeches.  
Study Malcolm’s speeches
Coming out of our discussion tonight, I hope many of us will go back and read Malcolm’s last speeches and interviews, perhaps some of us for the first time. Because while it’s great to listen to tapes of Malcolm’s talks, reading and studying what he had to say is part of the irreplaceable work of absorbing and preparing to act on the lessons of revolutionary struggle from past centuries.

Malcolm was not the wild, violent hatemonger that millions have been taught he was by the bourgeois media, both during his lifetime and since. Those of you old enough to have been politically active during the late 1950s or in the 1960s can recall how Malcolm was portrayed by the daily newspapers, by magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, and by national television networks. Their aim was to get people to stop listening to him, and, eventually, that false image helped set him up to be killed. But their caricature of Malcolm was false and misleading when he was a leader of the Nation of Islam, and even more so—were it possible—after his break with the Nation in early 1964.

There’s an additional distortion that some since Malcolm’s death have used to blunt the impact of his revolutionary political message. They imply that during the final months of Malcolm’s life, he was converging with other prominent figures who made significant contributions to the fight for Black rights, including some who even gave their lives in the course of that struggle, but who acted on the conviction that U.S. capitalist society, its government, and its twin political parties could be pressured into advancing the interests of the oppressed. The main example, of course, is the “Malcolm-Martin” theme we hear so much about these days—from sentimental popular songs to drawings and wall hangings, from the mass media to academic research, writings by former revolutionaries, and so on.

Malcolm certainly was ready to show respect and appreciation to anyone who devoted their life to the fight against racism and for Black equality. He was ready for united action to advance common demands on the powers-that-be in the fight for Black liberation, colonial freedom, and other goals. But Malcolm was also always ready to expose and rebut not only the lies but the political dead ends offered by these same individuals. He punctured the pretensions of misleaders whose overall outlook, strategy, or tactics politically disarmed the oppressed, taught us to rely on the promises and “good will” of any section of the exploiters and their political parties, and left us defenseless in face of racist terror, police violence, or other imperialist horrors. Concretely, it’s simply false that Malcolm during his last year was converging politically with Martin Luther King—with King’s bourgeois pacifism, his social-democratic ideas, his commitment to the reformability of capitalism, his support for the imperialist Democratic Party and various of its politicians.
Related articles:
Malcolm X: internationalize struggle against racism
Drive opens: Sell ‘Workers Power’ and ‘Militant’  
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